Ukrainian police have moved in on a large opposition camp in Kyiv, pushing back anti-government protesters as violence in the capital has escalated. Opposition leaders have called for demonstrators to stand their ground.
As darkness fell, riot police used water cannons, stun grenades and rubber bullets to clear thousands of anti-government protesters from Independence Square in Kyiv, the center of nearly three months of opposition protests.
As police stormed the square early on Wednesday, protesters were reported to be holding their ground, some wielding clubs and wearing body armor.
Law enforcement agencies had vowed to bring order to the streets after violent clashes earlier in the day between police and protesters outside parliament.
A total of at least 18 people were said to have been killed on Tuesday, the worst death toll since the protests erupted. The Interior Ministry said the dead included seven police officers.
US Vice President Joe Biden late on Tuesday telephoned Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych over the violence, urging him to pull back security forces.
"The vice president further underscored the urgency of immediate dialogue with opposition leaders to address protesters' legitimate grievances and to put forward serious proposals for political reform," said a White House statement.
Police on Tuesday dismantled some of the barricades on the perimeter of the square, and many of the protest tents were set on fire with demonstrators fighting back, armed with rocks, bats and fire bombs.
In an unprecedented move, authorities also closed Kyiv's underground system.
Government opponents have been calling for the resignation of Yanukovych since November, when he pulled out of a trade agreement with the EU in favor of a multi-billion-euro loan from Moscow. The move sparked mass protests, primarily in the capital city.
'Island of freedom'
Heavyweight boxing champion-turned-politician Vitali Klitschko urged protesters to defend the embattled camp.
"We will not go anywhere from here," Klitschko told the crowd, "This is an island of freedom and we will defend it," he said speaking from a stage in the square as fires burned around him.
Fellow opposition leader Arseniy Yatsenyuk told the protesters, "We see that this regime again has begun shooting people; they want to sink Ukraine in blood. We will not give in to a single provocation."
"We will not take one step back from this square. We have nowhere to retreat to. Ukraine is behind us, Ukraine's future is behind us," he said.
On Monday, Klitschko and Yatsenyuk met with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin to discuss the crisis and their plans for constitutional reform. Klitschko said after the talks that Berlin should take a leading role in finding a solution and called on the West to impose sanctions against Ukrainian officials.
hc,rc/kms (Reuters, AFP, AP, dpa)